Call for Protection of International Students

By Minah Ali (CE’23)

(Editor’s Note: The version of the letter published to the website was adjusted for formatting. A link is avaibable to the unchanged article in the body of the text. A link has also been provided to sign the letter here)

A few hours after President Trump tweeted “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” on July 6th, the Department of Homeland Security released a broadcast message titled “COVID-19 and Fall 2020”. Seemingly politically and financially motivated, the announcement reeked of xenophobia. It stated that nonimmigrant F-1 students taking a fully online course-load, which the Cooper Union was following as of June 2020, may not remain in the United States, possibly facing deportation. On July 9th, the Cooper Union administration responded to this crisis with an email stating a shift to a hybrid model of learning, which requires all international students to be in the US. However, with the SEVP regulations preventing students from taking online courses outside of the US in a hybrid model, international students would not have the ability to remain in their home countries to continue remote learning. In the administration’s email, this clause was misunderstood, which, given the severity of the crisis, shows irresponsibility. A collective of students took action to ensure that the Cooper Union protects all international students at the institution in a letter emailed to the administration.

The following letter was written collectively over the course of 36 hours and amassed almost 250 signatures before being sent to the administration on June 9th at 8 PM EDT:

July 9th 2020

To: 
President Laura Sparks
Office of the President and Board Relations Charlotte Wessell
Chair of the Board of Trustees Rachel L. Warren
Dean Mike Essl
Dean Nader Tehrani
Dean Barry Shoop
Dean Chris Chamberlin
Acting Dean Anne Griffin
Associate Dean Adriana Farmiga
Associate Dean Lisa Shay   
Associate Dean Ruben Savizky
Assistant Dean Hayley Eber
Assistant Dean Nada Ayad 
Chief Talent Officer Natalie Brooks
Vice President for Enrollment Mark Campbell
VP of Alumni Affairs and Development Terri Coppersmith
Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness Antoinette Torres 
Vice President of Finance and Administration John Ruth
Media Relations Manager Kim Newman
Creative Director Mindy Lang
Chief Technology Officer Robert Reinckens
AD of International Student Advisement Hala Alkasm

Please SIGN HERE

Please note: This document has been sent to the administration as of July 9th, 8pm EDT

Preamble

On July 6th, the Department of Homeland Security announced changes to the Student & Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) which directly endanger nonimmigrant F-1 students at the Cooper Union under the current Fall 2020 COVID-19 response plan. The announcement stated that nonimmigrant students taking a fully virtual course-load may not remain in the United States. Despite the outlined requests for action within the SEVP framework, most ‘fixes’ still severely limit the freedom of choice of international students and do not accommodate every international student’s individual context.

Alternatives to leaving the United States provided by the SEVP, such as “transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status” or taking long-term medical leave, are deliberately impractical and leave international students in vulnerable positions without the necessary time to properly arrange accommodations to work within the current SEVP framework.

The best-case recourse would be to keep the Spring 2020 visa changes1 that allowed international students to remain in the United States despite fully online course-loads. The institution must denounce the actions of ICE.

The following are three cases of temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online courses:

  1. If the school is operating entirely online, the U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students and active students must depart the country.
  2. If the school is operating under normal in-person classes, students may not take more than one class or three credit hours online.
  3. If the school is operating under a hybrid model, students will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. The school must certify to SEVP that the student is not taking an entirely online course load and is taking the minimum number of online classes to make normal progress toward degree completion.

International Students at the Cooper Union

Financial
Historically, international students have been repeatedly exploited for financial benefit without assured residency past their education. International students account for approximately 19% of the Cooper Union student body (and a much higher proportion in the graduate programs) and represent over 35 countries. They spend inordinate amounts of money to simply access education but are met with companies that refuse to sponsor visas, constantly changing immigration regulations, and xenophobia. The following is a non-exhaustive list of The Cooper Union’s policies which work in conjunction with larger US policy to ultimately fail our students who come from outside the United States:

    1. International students, by virtue of not being eligible for financial aid or need-based scholarships, contribute more than any other student group in terms of tuition fees, providing funding required for the subsidization of tuition for United States citizens and allowing Cooper Union to continue working towards the 2018 ten-year plan to return to full scholarships.
    2. International students pay taxes on our income despite reaping none of the benefits that come with being a US citizen.
    3. International students pay $2010 dollars annually in “international student fees”, charged through opaque, non-itemized bills, to the Cooper Union, in addition to the mandated I-901 SEVIS entry fee, and fees for visa application and renewal when applying for entry into the United States.
    4. The email sent out to students by the Cooper administration on Thursday, July 9th, included harmful misinformation intended primarily to minimise reactions to the extremely severe crisis. The lackluster nature of this email revealed Cooper’s apparent bias towards retaining international student enrollment, and the financial implications of this, reinforcing the notion that international students are financial reservoirs to be exploited.
    5. The United States administration’s forceful and premature re-opening of institutions of higher education directly exploits the vulnerability of international students’ situations. This policy effectively serves as a nationalistic tool to further jeopardize students who are formalizing their immigration statuses , visiting on visas, or are undocumented.

Pedagogical
Rather than looking solely at international students as people to be financially exploited, international students serve to enrich the learning of their peers:

  1. International students provide a diverse array of perspectives necessary for the advancement of discourse within the disciplines of art, architecture, engineering, and the humanities.
  2. The perspectives of international students are essential in de-centeringthe colonialist focus of education in art, architecture, engineering, and the humanities, and will be key in the Cooper Union’s movement towards becoming an anti-racist institution.

Potential Consequences Faced by the International Student Community

Since the federal government’s announcement, neither President Sparks nor the members of the Cooper Union administration have publicly condemned the policy. This silence and inaction insults students integral to the Cooper Union community. The following are a list of consequences that will be faced by the international student community in the continued absence of action from the Cooper Union administration:

    1. The F-1 Visa will not be issued to incoming first-year international students.
    2. International students currently residing in the US will be forced to leave the country, regardless of whether or not they are able to enter their country of permanent residence/ “home” country (due to financial reasons, travel restrictions, etc.).
    3. In many cases, one’s “home” country and country of citizenship are different, meaning that COVID-based travel restrictions (i.e. citizen-only entry) will force students to return to countries with which they have no connection.
    4. Students forced to travel will face increased exposure to COVID-19, exponentially increasing the likelihood of infection.
    5. In the case of being unable to leave the United States, students face prosecution, deportation, or detention, all of which will be used to justify restrictions to future entry into the United States.

List of Demands

The following are a list of demands, descending in urgency, to be addressed by the Cooper Union administration. Given the imminent consequences of inaction, we ask that you act with efficiency and urgency.

Note: We are cognizant of the fact that anything less than SEVP/ICE repealing the policy would be a lackluster solution at best. Both “hybrid” and online-only models pose severe disadvantages to international students. In an online model, international students currently in the United States will be forced to leave or risk deportation. In a “hybrid” model, international students unable to return to the United States (and for whom remote online learning is the best option) will not be able to continue enrolling at Cooper; F-1 visas are contingent on a formal declaration stating that classes are not 100% online. In either scenario, a significant portion of the international student population will be unable to continue their education at the Cooper Union. Given that any change in the operational status to an online model would not be within the institution’s control, and would result in only ten days for international students to leave the country or risk detention, points four and five are only limited measures:

  1. Denounce the ICE Executive Order restricting F-1 and M-1 student visas through public channels, including, but not limited to:
    • The Cooper Union website
    • Any and all avenues available to the Cooper Communications Team
    • Public news/media outlets
  2. File an amicus brief supporting the MIT-Harvard lawsuit.2
  3. Relay a specific and clear commitment (via the public channels stated in point one) that the Cooper Union will, to the fullest possible extent, attempt to ensure all of its international students can stay enrolled out of the country or remain within the country, regardless of the result of the MIT-Harvard lawsuit.
  4. Create formally recognized classes available to international students for the purpose of fulfilling SEVP requirements for in-person learning within 48 hours of receiving this letter.
  5. Issue the appropriate documentation required to obtain F-1 visas within seven days of above the change, to allow for adequate buffer room before the SEVP’s August 4th, 2020 deadline.
  6. Redirect international student fees for legal consulting and financial support for international students’ visa applications.
  7. Prioritize international students in terms of access to on-campus housing, including, but not limited to:
    1. Current students whose apartment leases have been affected as a direct result of the SEVP announcement.
    2. Students for whom travel to their home country poses a significant financial burden, or who face travel restrictions and are unable to enter their country of permanent residence.
    3. Students for whom a return to their home country would entail reduced internet access, exposure to political volatility, health risks, drastic timezone shifts, and/or other disruptions to education.
  8. Compile resources for financial, psychological, and administrative support for international students during this time of crisis, including, but not limited to:
    1. Specialized counseling services with professionals that have strong experience working with international students and people from outside of the country. 3
    2. Grants akin to the Petrie program that can accommodate international students who need to make new arrangements under short notice. Currently a lot of federal grant money of this type is allocated solely to US citizens, so there is a need for a source of funding that can be directed towards students without United States citizenship.
  9. Waive the mandatory $2010 international student fee for the 2020-2021 academic year for current and incoming international students.
  10. Provide, from the 2021-2022 academic year and all future years, documentation to international students detailing the uses of international fees and continual evaluation of the charges.
  11. Expand the International Students Services Office (ISSO) to adequately reflect the significant proportion of international students within the Cooper Union student body.

Concluding Remarks

As with anti-racism, free tuition, mental health, and countless other issues that require action at the institutional scale, the Cooper Union is in a position to serve as a proactive model for how academic bodies must act. The Cooper Union cannot continue to tout diversity and inclusivity without also publicly committing, through both statements and action, to solidarity with the international student community during this time of crisis. Empty, corporatized responses only serve to pour salt on the wounds of already vulnerable people simply asking to be treated with decency. We understand that there are multiple crises in need of rapid and direct responses on the part of the school’s administration. This moment in our nation’s history, however, is not the moment for gradualism or incremental action, and certainly not the moment for standing by. At the date that this document is shared with the administration, three days of the 21-day SEVP deadline have elapsed.

Those to whom this letter is addressed hold the responsibility to ensure that the students that attend the Cooper Union feel safe and have the necessary access to learn. You hold the power to utilise your voice as an administration, to listen to those facing injustice, to act.

Endnotes:

1. https://www.ice.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Document/2020/Coronavirus%20Guidance_3.13.20.pdf

2. https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2020/07/amicus-brief-ice-lawsuit-international-students-princeton

3. Continually explaining the context behind mental struggles can be difficult and having professionals already accustomed to these types of issues would alleviate the need of long explanations.

References and Resources

1. Harvard President Bacow Condemns New ICE Guidelines Jeopardizing International Students

2. Policy regarding the consequences of switching from a hybrid to an online-only model:

“Schools should update their information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) within 10 days of the change if they begin the fall semester with in-person classes but are later required to switch to only online classes, or a nonimmigrant student changes their course selections, and as a result, ends up taking an entirely online course load. Nonimmigrant students within the United States are not permitted to take a full course of study through online classes. If students find themselves in this situation, they must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave.”

3. Documentation required for F-1 visas in the case of hybrid learning:

“Students attending schools adopting a hybrid model—that is, a mixture of online and in

person classes—will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online.

These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for

Nonimmigrant Student Status,” that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not

taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester, and that the student is taking 

the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree

program. The above exemptions do not apply to F-1 students in English language training

programs or M-1 students, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses (see 8 CFR

214.2(f)(6)(i)(G) and 8 CFR 214.2(m)(9)(v))).”

4. List of in-person classes for international student registration at the University of California, Los Angeles

5. Lawsuit: Harvard College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology v. United States DHS, ICE, etc. 

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